A Mountain Man, sketch by Frederic Remington
Witness Post: Mountain Man Syndrome
The Jackson Hole trapper of 1869 was powerful and solitary as he arrived at the annual rendezvous. That winter he had stared face-to-face with the grizzly bear and won. He had the hide to prove it. He had trapped and skinned beaver, muskrat, river otter, rabbit, and wolf, saving all of their pelts for the exchange. He was the quintessential mountain man of his era. But he is long gone. His story is but a fleeting memory, replaced by the stultifying male condition known as the Mountain Man Syndrome or MMS for short.
MMS is a serious, potentially terminal condition that has afflicted men in this country. The syndrome occurs in men between the ages 21 to 41, who are drawn to live in mountain towns throughout the western states. The condition leaves them emotionally and psychologically stuck at the age of 20. These boys are thrill seekers in perpetual pursuit of physical challenges and testosterone rushes. In the winter it’s time to strap on skis and shred the slopes; in spring it is hiking and prepping for summer; in summer it’s time to scale the mountains and swim the rivers; the fall is time to hunker down with some serious weed and alcohol and watch the aspen turn.
[The condition could be dubbed MBS, for Mountain Boy Syndrome, but that acronym would be confused with Mortgage Backed Securities, which helped bring down the housing market.]
MMS boys live to hike-bike-climb-ski-kayak-snowshoe-raft every day. Before they know it, their ski-bum habits take over their lives. MMS in the worst cases lasts for years. Each spring those afflicted delude themselves into thinking, “I’ll just spend one more year here in this mountain town,” and before they know it they’re over 40, a score of years has slipped by, and they have few prospects for a permanent relationship outside of their small circle of friends.
These men-to-boys are smart and college educated and self-reliant and adventurous and handsome and rugged — all of these could be considered to be fabulous personal qualities. Yet they’re missing a critical piece: a vision of the big picture. They are so existential, they miss out on relationships that seek their engagement.
Q: “Do you have any retirement funds set aside?”
A: “Retirement? That is for OLD people. I don’t need that, I have plenty of time. Besides, I just set some money aside for an awesome new pair of skis. Great, right?”
Men most affected by MMS have a “bro mentality.” For example, they can talk for hours on end about the latest climbing gear that’s soon to be coming, the sickest mountain bike that they have seen, or the newest snowboard at the store. With anyone who will listen, they share intimate details about the most rad climbing technique and the guy who skied down the couloir the other day. Absent from their conversations are any connection with the upcoming election, what’s happening to the climate, or what is looming in other parts of the world. The syndrome encloses the infected ones in an impermeable bubble that keeps such noise at the lowest level possible, so as not to distract the men from what is their most pressing obsession: themselves.
When someone, such as a girlfriend, enters into the bubble with those infected with MMS, caveat emptor. If that woman has desires to be number one in his life, watch out. Narcissism rules the bubble. He may reply, “At some point in the future you might aspire to be number one, you might even be tied for number one, but getting to the top of my priority list is unattainable: too many peaks ahead to be tied down. Besides, aren’t we having a ton fun? Aren’t you happy?”
The women in these circles are often at different places. They love climbing and skiing and hiking as much as the guys, but they don’t see romance as a contact sport where they must vie for a guy’s attention and beat out the adventures. They have a long range perspective. When the men reject them, they feel undervalued and unappreciated, because they are. The lifestyle makes it so that women have to compete for their boyfriend’s attention and affection. There is a wait-and-see-what-will-happen in the next gig or the next short job or the next ski day. “Give it some time, woman…Chill.” Many women are not willing to wait, and move on.
The Hurt Locker
“I wanted to marry him,” lament many women who left their MMS partner for greener pastures. “He was not interested in saving for our future, because that might interfere with his climbing trip to Mexico and his cement counter top gig down south of the border. At least that was the 6-month plan.”
When she is ready to commit to a man with MMS, the ground rules get laid and so does she. She gives in, but she doesn’t give up. She sees an eventual engagement and life together, starting with a ring and a nest egg and a reliable, steady income. She is living in the present, but longs for the future. The MMS individual is perpetually stuck in the present.
As a psychologist friend put it, “The individualistic good of MMS trumps the collective better, because it is more immediate and exhilarating.” The women believe that their mates will “grow out of it,” but they don’t. When they realize that the MMS is too deeply rooted to dig out, it really hurts. Guard your heart from limbo in the hurt locker, it could all get blown up; and the painful purgatory of the aftermath sucks.
The women who weather those first few years start doing some extraordinary things on their own: running non-profits, helping the handicapped in the community, getting investment jobs, owning restaurants, heading accounting firms. The men have no such aspirations. They make a “good living” waiting tables, working the ski lifts, serving as wilderness guides, or tending bar. There is plenty of time for those other things, when they get old. Besides they just worked enough hours to get a free mountain ski pass for the winter, “Now, let’s party!”
Don’t get me wrong. Some MMS men are doing extraordinary things that give back to the community; however, it is often not altogether altruistic. They are usually doing it because the schedule is convenient for their outdoor lifestyle. Their passions for adventure, if push comes to shove, take precedent.
Weed, Whites and Wine
The days are long and not without their hassles, so many MMS sufferers resort to smoking the weed they picked up on their last trip to Colorado. It is the perfect way to take the edge off. Besides, there is no real harm in it. It’s not like cigarettes with their lung-coating tar and addictive nicotine or anything. With reefer they can relax and get a buzz on without offending the neighbors. The smell is easily masked by the bar-b-que smoke, if things become too noxious for the children next door. The other drugs, such as ludes and coke, are present in the mountain towns, but they are often pushed to the periphery. After a day of Red Bull or Monster drinks, the preferred relaxation comes from smoking some good weed.
There’s also a heavy drinking culture in these towns. People will habitually have several drinks après ski and then drink several more adult beverages to get revved up for the night. Whiskey is everywhere. Shots on the house. Or, if you prefer, there’s vodka in the freezer.
Wine works for the tourists from out of town, but don’t get your hopes up for a quality wine selection. Pricey micro brews are nice, and there is an amber on tap, but there is nothing like a good old PBR, followed by a shot and a few more drinks. Those cold ones can hit the spot, when beer is the perfect antidote for the blues. Sleeping off a hang-over is always an option the next day.
Women, who witness their loved ones with MMS, wonder where the ailment comes from. Are they not enough for their partner? The folly seems to be in the thinking that they were partners in the first place.
Women complain about the syndrome, even joke about it. They know it when they see it. But they have found no constructive ways to change the behavior.
What to do? What to do?
The First Sign – Denial
“Mountain Man Syndrome is a myth,” the guys will claim. “There is no such thing. It is just a made-up expression developed by some psycho-babbling shrink, who doesn’t know what she is talking about.” So they will say.
The reality is that the condition is not restricted to Jackson, WY, or Nederland, CO. It can be found in Aspen, Truckee, Sun Valley, Vail, Telluride, and lots of other small enclaves filled to timberline with the idle rich at play. When confronted by those who love them, those infected MMS will shame their partners into thinking they are crazy. “I love you, baby. You know that! Didn’t I take you on that last peak of the Grand? We are living the dream, and it is exactly as we agreed it is supposed to be! Right? Don’t you remember what we said?”
Upon reflection, the woman realizes that their man is exactly right. Together they are living the dream they laid out for each other that first summer, when they met. They are doing all of the things that thrill them and fill that hole for excitement they have always hoped to quell. But after time, with the seasons wearing on, the women want more. They want love and stability and permanence, as much as can be grasped. They want to settle down.
The Attraction of Having It All
Women are having a difficult time these days because they want to work and make a living. They never intended to depend on a man for anything. But, it is nice when men pay for dates and take a girl out. It feels good to have a man say, “Would you please go on a date with me tonight?” The usual pick-up lines about “hooking up” are stale. It’s as if the courting rituals have completely disappeared.
People are no longer living with their extended families nearby. They have recreated their own families with peers and friends of convenience. Those with MMS are not thinking about what their family might look like in a few years, because those considerations are quarantined to the future. For now they are worried about playing and less worried about figuring out their household. They do not worry about courting a woman, because there are enough to go around, more coming every year. Besides there will be plenty of time to make a deal with one to be your wife and who needs marriage these days?
There isn’t much racial or economic diversity among people in these mountain towns. Skiing, rafting, and climbing are white, rich person’s sports. If you are looking for diversity of ideas, much less skin color, better head to urban areas, like Denver, or Boise, or San Francisco, or Albuquerque.
Is There a Cure?
Downtowns in mountain towns are easy to fall for. They are charming and quaint and glitzy. Some people call these mountain towns Never-Neverland, as in Peter Pan. It’s easy to get stuck in Jackson and never grow up. You can be a lost boy forever. These boyz II men often have dreams of being rich and owning a ranch nearby, but they have traded their time for the next slope run and not the next career run. They prefer to be rich with experiences, as opposed to rich financially. The ranch remains elusive. I was dreaming about that range, but my buddies called last night and we will be headed into the back country for some skiing and I just bought these great new skins.” It is too easy to push off thinking about family and future plans until tomorrow.
Perhaps instead of seeking cures, it is better to figure out what is going on. With MMS, every experiences is real and cathartic. The experiences allow them to have a deep dive into the mountain subculture. It allows them to wallow in self-expression and hedonistic pleasure. These mountain towns are perfect land bridges for men to go from spot to spot without having to traverse the territory between. They can avoid the cities, the suburbs, and other settled places, where the dominant culture is getting jobs, settling down, and raising families.
Subcultures in mountain towns are extraordinarily attractive. They are full of people who seem to want exactly what you want, and WOW are those views spectacularly beautiful. It is important to understand and appreciate the intrinsic beauty and pleasure of these places. The apartments where most can afford to live may not be glamorous, but with that perpetually gorgeous vista, people get pulled in.
The danger is that it’s kind of like quicksand: when you are surrounded by people who feel the same way that you do, you can see yourself as cozy. Anyone who disagrees with you has long since moved on. When the fit of the subculture feels comforting and not constrictive, it’s too late. The clay starts to harden and the terrain gets dicey. By then it is nearly impossible to extract yourself from it. You’re a goner.
P.S. Women, run as fast as you can. Come back in a few years with a new partner. Someone who will jointly buy that ranch with you.